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No one saw it coming, but COVID-19 may prove to be a permanent game changer when it comes to education. In March and April of 2020, teachers were not prepared for the sudden closing of schools in an effort to control the spread of this virus that created a global pandemic.
Students were sent home to a wide range of remote learning realities. Some had packets of hard copy worksheets to complete. Others had teachers who tried to deliver at least some curriculum content using Internet tools and platforms. Many parents struggled with the technology and the fact that much of their child’s learning was now up to them. For many, the end of the school year did not come fast enough.
By the time summer break rolled around, the realization was starting to set in that we would be dealing with COVID-19 for a long time. School districts and public charter schools were directed to plan for the worse even though everyone was hoping for the best.
Teachers focused their professional development on effective practices for remote instruction and remote learning. Districts invested money to beef up their technology infrastructure and come up with ways to bridge the digital divide that still leaves many students without access to computers or the Internet in their homes. Special educators and related service providers had even greater challenges as they tried to figure out how to remotely deliver specially designed instruction and therapies to students with all types of disabilities.
Even before COVID, there were students who were unable to attend school in person for a variety of reasons, including health issues and disciplinary actions. Many of these students were only provided with a few hours of instruction per week. In North Carolina, it is common for home bound students to only have four hours or less contact with their teacher, sometimes after schools are closed for the day. Teachers drop-off and pickup assignments that the students complete between visits. There is no way to cover the full general education curriculum in that amount of time. Hopefully, this type of experience will become a thing of the past.
So what part of this is positive? Schools have learned how to do remote learning better!
Schools now know that quality instruction and learning can be delivered in a variety of ways to students who remain in their homes. Best of all, the vast majority of public school teachers continue to gain experience and improve their skills when it comes to distance learning. Remote instruction is no longer limited to a handful of specialists. Parents are also gaining experience navigating various internet platforms and apps, and using on-line communication tools and resources.
There are many variations in how remote/hybrid instruction is currently being conducted. Almost all of them are an improvement over what was happening before COVID. It should be possible to find a mode or strategy that will be a good match for almost any student. This is a real opportunity for schools to re-imagine and raise expectations for at-home instruction. There is no longer a reason to accept that students will fall behind, or that there is only enough time to focus on a couple of subject areas, such as language arts and math.
To everyone involved in planning education for students who are not able to come into the school building, we now know that you can, and should, do better.
Over the last few months, we have all heard the word “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times. If we did not know what the word meant before, surely we do now. With the COVID-19 virus still in our midst, the Summer of 2020 will not be business as usual. Many summer camps, programs, and even vacation Bible schools will not be operating this year. The programs that will be offered will probably look quite a bit different than in the past, with smaller group sizes, social distancing, and concerns about sanitizing everything. This could end up making the programs more expensive at a time when many families are feeling real economic hardship.
The other thing that makes the summer of 2020 different from any other is the fact that most students will begin the summer after being away from their schools for over two months. By the time they get back to school in the fall, they will have been away from their classrooms for over five months. This is an unprecedented break from formal instruction. Even those schools that have made a sincere effort to help students learn remotely during the school closure, will have to acknowledge that what was offered does not replace being in school five days a week for six hours a day. Many parents are already concerned about the instruction that their children missed. They are just as concerned about previously learned skills being lost over this extended break from school.
It is more important than ever to think about ways that learning can continue to take place during the summer. This doesn’t mean that kids can’t still have fun. In some communities, libraries and museums may reopen to the public. Being out in nature offers endless opportunities for hands-on learning about biology, geology, ecosystems and other aspects of the world around us. When children show an interest in something, this can open the door for questions, research, investigations and even simple experiments to learn more. There are museums, state and national parks, and even zoos that offer virtual tours or hidden cameras that allow folks to “visit” without having to travel to those locations. There are also many educational websites with games and activities to make learning fun. You may want to ask your child’s teacher for recommendations of sites that may be especially helpful to your child.
If you don’t have the time to piece together a patchwork quilt of experiences for your child’s summer activities, there are some virtual summer camps that have done that work for you. Many places that have traditionally offered in-person programs, are now offering modified versions of their programs online. If they charged fees in the past, there will probably still be a cost to these programs. If you already had certain summer programs in mind, check with them to see what they may be offering this year.
Here is a list of some of the free virtual camps that are available during the summer of 2020. Some have already started!
- Varsity Tutors Virtual Summer Camps
- PBS Kids
- Camp Kinda
- Camp Wonderopolis
- Met Opera Global Summer Camp
- Happy Camper Live
- Reading Rockets “Start with a Book”
Whether your child is learning to read or reading to learn, reading is the most essential tool for learning. It is important to always encourage your child to read. Read to and with younger children. Use whatever works with older children. If they don’t want to read books, you can have them look up an answer to settle an argument, help do research on a possible future travel destination, read about possible careers or get information about colleges. Whatever works!
This summer will be different, but it can still be great!
Effective communication is important to good working relationships between parents and schools. This is especially true when it comes to communication about special education. Parents are often the first to express concerns about their child’s development or learning. Parents are also required members of any group that makes decisions about special education evaluation, eligibility or development of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for an eligible student with disability. Whether you are at the beginning of the special education process or an IEP team veteran, it is important to use words that express your thoughts accurately.
Remember that communication is a 2-way street. There is a message that is sent and a message that is received. Unfortunately, they are not always the same thing. The chart below gives examples of words or expressions that may seem similar, but could mean something very different when used in special education-related conversations. Using the wrong term can lead to confusion, frustration and/or an unintended result.
|Asking for extra help or tutoring for a struggling student.
This could lead to adjustments by the general education teacher, a referral to the school’s intervention team, or the parent might be told about tutoring available through the school or how they can find a private tutor.
|Request for a special education evaluation or special education services.
This will trigger a formal process to gather information and determine if the student is eligible for special education services.
The student is enrolled in a public school that typically provides limited educational services either in the home or another community setting.
In N.C., home schools are considered private schools. Public school systems are not required to provide instruction except under certain circumstances.
|Revoke consent for special education services.
All special education services will stop. Parents cannot hold school system responsible for providing FAPE.
|Refuse a specific special education service while keeping other services and supports.
IEP Team must consider options and decide how to ensure that the student receives FAPE. There should not be an automatic “all-or-nothing” threat.
Student is improving their academic or functional skills.
Student is improving at an accelerated rate that will close the skill gap with typical peers over time.
If you are communicating with others and the response is not what you expect, check to make sure that they understood you correctly. It may be necessary to clarify what you mean. Consider using different words or giving an example. Words do matter!
It has taken years of planning and preparation, but the Every Child Accountability and Tracking System (ECATS) is finally operating in all North Carolina public schools that serve students in grades K-12. ECATS is a data system made up of three modules: Special Education, Service Documentation, and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). ECATS provides a way to capture high quality information in a consistent way for a variety of purposes.
The Special Education module will help the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) better do its job of monitoring and assisting Local Education Agencies (LEAs). The goal is that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. NCDPI also has to collect data and make reports to the U.S. Department of Education.
Changes were made to several special education forms as part of the transition to ECATS. When their child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is re-written, parents will notice that some sections of the form have been moved around and/or changed in some way. The new IEP form still contains all of the information required by federal and state laws.
The biggest change is that all of the child’s Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) statements are clustered together in the one section of the IEP. The new IEP form has a place to list the results of an initial evaluation or re-evaluation, as well as other data. For each skill area included in the evaluation, the IEP Team then has to decide (and document) if the student requires specially designed instruction (i.e., special education) in that area. Sometimes the answer will be “yes,” and sometimes it will be “no.” For students with existing IEPs, there should be PLAAFP statements for all skill areas where there are concerns.
The Annual Goals are also clustered together, but in a different section that will probably be two or more pages after the PLAAFP. This may make it more challenging to compare the proposed goals with the relevant PLAAFP statements. That comparison helps determine whether the goal is appropriately ambitious, yet reasonable for the student.
Parents can request a hard copy of the draft IEP so they can have the PLAAFP statements in front of them while the annual goals are developed. Other IEP team members may find this helpful as well.
Change happens, but it is easier to accept when you are prepared. If you would like to look at the new Exceptional Children Forms, you can find them here:
Did you know that the Exceptional Children Division of the North Carolina Department of Public instruction (NCDPI) has a group of trained individuals who can serve as independent facilitators for IEP meetings?
You will not find IEP meeting facilitation mentioned in the N.C. parent rights handbook because it is not a requirement of the federal special education law, IDEA. However, North Carolina is among many states who offer facilitation as a way to help IEP teams work through challenging situations. Facilitators are often able to help keep problems from getting to the point where formal dispute resolution steps are necessary.
IEP Team members are expected to work together and make good decisions on behalf of children who have disabilities. Sometimes, however, IEP team members have different ideas about what is in the child’s best interest. At other times, emotions, personality conflict or past experiences make it difficult for teams to have serious discussions without meetings becoming uncomfortable or unproductive.
NCDPI has cross-trained selected individuals who have backgrounds in special education or professional mediation to serve as IEP meeting facilitators. These independent facilitators are not employed by NCDPI or by any school district, but NCDPI does pay them for their services.
When to consider requesting a facilitator:
- It has been difficult for the IEP team to make decisions, even after much discussion
- Previous IEP meetings have been tense; Team members feel they are not being heard
- The IEP meeting will have many participants, and complex issues to address.
How to request a facilitator:
- Either the school or the parent can request a Facilitated IEP (FIEP), but both must agree to it before a facilitator will be assigned.
- The FIEP Request Form and other information about the FIEP process is available on the NCDPI EC Division website: https://ec.ncpublicschools.gov/parent-resources/dispute-resolution/facilitation
What to expect:
- The Facilitator will contact the school and family to identify the issues and create an agenda for the IEP meeting. They make sure that the meeting time is long enough to address each issue.
- Ground Rules are established and the Facilitator will “run” the meeting. Facilitators do not have a say in IEP team decisions. They keep the team focused on the child, and the purpose of the meeting. They make sure that everyone has a chance to ask questions, provide information and offer ideas for consideration.
- If necessary, the Facilitator will create a list of follow-up Action Items. Individual team members take responsibility for each item on the list, and a target date for completion is set.
If all goes well, the FIEP process can serve as a model of how the IEP team can work together effectively to help each student get the free appropriate public education that they deserve.
IDEA requires schools to take certain steps when students with disabilities face a disciplinary change of placement. At that point, schools are required to hold a meeting to conduct a Manifestation Determination Review (MDR). The purpose of the MDR is to determine whether the behavior that the child is being disciplined for is caused by, or substantially related to their disability. If it is, the child returns to their current educational placement, a Functional Behavior Assessment is conducted, and a Positive Behavior Support Plan is either developed or revised.
Sometimes, the disciplinary change of placement is very clear. A decision was made to move the student to an alternative school, give them a long-term suspension, or restrict them to homebound services.
An unofficial change of placement occurs when students have missed more than 10 days of school due to disciplinary removals. Most schools do a good job of documenting out-of-school suspensions. However, many schools do not keep an accurate count of the days when students are sent home early, given in-school suspension (ISS), or forced to sit in someone’s office for hours at a time because of their behavior. In each of these situations, students are removed from their normal educational placement for disciplinary reasons. When these shorter removals happen again and again, they can eventually add up to a disciplinary change of placement.
Parents should keep track of the number of times that they are called to pick up their child from school early because of behavior. Be sure to note the time of day. Ask your child to tell you when they are sent to the office or ISS. When the total removal time reaches the equivalent of more than 10 days, ask for a Manifestation Determination Review.
The MDR requirement exists so that students are not repeatedly punished for having a disability. Instead, schools are supposed to look for better ways to support each student and help them develop the skills needed to function more successfully. Learning appropriate ways to get needs met is critical to long-term success in school and in life. Frequent undocumented removals also cause students to miss valuable instructional time, which places them at an increased risk of falling behind academically.
Poor record keeping is not an excuse to deny students the behavioral support and instruction that many of them need to receive a free appropriate public education.
By Billy Pickens, Intern
As a senior in college, I have had the pleasure of taking many classes in which I received a great deal of powerful information. One thing that made every college class worthwhile was the fact that, no matter how important I felt each class was, I still learned a valuable lesson that would leave a lasting impact on my life. Some of these lessons were immediately recognizable. However, there were some that did not occur to me as extremely valuable until I really thought about them.
One specific example of the latter was a lecture given by my General Psychology professor. In this lecture, we were discussing the history of mental illness in America and how it has been dealt with over time. My professor made the point that prior to scientific research and progressive movements within the disability community, those with disabilities were often seen as useless or less than human. Many were seen as being under the spell of a demon and therefore were locked away, abused or even killed simply because they did not live up to the standard of what was considered “normal.”
While I found this history both riveting and disheartening, it was a story I had heard too many times before as a person with a disability. For that reason, at first I did not see it as anything inspiring or thought-provoking. It was not until I began serving on the Student Advisory Board for my school’s Disability Services that these stories gained more impact and became more important to me.
As a student advisor, one of my tasks is to go into classrooms throughout my school and talk to students about how I have managed to live a normal, productive life despite my disability. My peers and I share stories of how we had been underestimated, written off and treated unfairly by many who had negative perceptions of persons with disabilities. It was through our stories, and students saying that our testimonies really changed their own perspectives, that I was reminded of my professor’s lecture.
I began thinking more about my own journey and how I found myself in college striving for employment, yet many of my friends with my disability are still relying heavily on the support systems around them. While pondering the perceptions of the world and the history of disability culture, I came to the conclusion that one of the key reasons why many with disabilities struggle to flourish in today’s society is society’s attempt to change a person’s disability instead of adapting to it. However, I believe that this is not so much the fault of society in general, but the support system of the person with a disability.
From the time I was born, my parents were prepared for the possibility that I would be totally blind with gradual hearing loss. There had been a slight hope that maybe I would be born completely normal. However, being that my condition was genetic and the chance of me inheriting the gene was extremely high, my parents knew that this was highly unlikely. Even so, I was raised normally, participated in activities relevant to my age group and attended public school.
There was always the lingering conversation of restoring my sight. I remember from a young age attending conferences centered around vision restoration. While I willingly agreed to attend these conferences with my parents, restoring my sight was hardly ever a desire of mine. What is the point? I am achieving my goals despite my blindness and have no time to focus on changing it.
I say this to say that if you are a person who has a disability or are associated with someone who has a disability, the last thing you should do to help that person is try to cure them of that disability. I am not saying that if the opportunity to cure someone of a disability arises you should not benefit from it. However, you should focus more on adapting to the present situation than trying to find a cure. In my opinion, this is the most important characteristic of someone who overcomes obstacles and turns perception into progression.
We have come so far as a culture in awareness of our value to society. We are showing the world each day that we can break down barriers, and do it with our disability. People like Helen Keller, Louis Braille and others were not respected just because of their disability, but because of what they chose to do with that disability. Those who embrace their disabilities and use them as motivation instead of defeat will have the main ingredient in conquering any obstacle that comes their way. Likewise, people who support those with disabilities may experience a shift in their own perspective when they focus more energy on teaching skills to successfully adapt to the environment. Through this approach, they will see how obstacles are conquered and real progress is made.
Q: What are private schools required to do in order to serve students with disabilities?
A: Unlike public schools, private schools (K-12) are not required to follow federal and state special education laws. If parents make a decision on their own to enroll their child in a private school, they should understand that the school has a lot of power to decide how much they are willing to do in order to serve that child. This is true whether the child has a disability or not.
Private schools do have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires basic access to a private school’s buildings and programs. Students cannot be discriminated against, treated unequally, or isolated because of their disability. Private schools can set admission requirements, but they cannot intentionally screen out applicants with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to attend.
Private schools must make “reasonable modifications” to policies, practices and procedures to provide equal access. They are required to provide aids and services to allow people with vision, hearing or speech impairments to communicate effectively. Private schools are not required to provide modifications, accommodations, aids or services that would create an excessive burden for them. When deciding exactly how to meet the needs of a student, parent or employee with a disability, factors can be considered such as how the cost of the aid or service compares to the overall resources available to the school. If resources are very limited, a school can choose less expensive options.
Private schools do not have to provide special education instruction or services like speech, occupational or physical therapy.
Private schools do not have to fundamentally alter their program in order to accommodate a student’s disability. For example, a school that has an identity based on having an advanced curriculum can remove a student who was working well below grade level. A school that focuses on hands-on learning in the natural outdoor environment can refuse to serve a student who is extremely fearful of most animals and insects.
We are often asked about what private schools are required to do by law. However, there are many private schools that voluntarily go beyond the minimum requirements. Some offer extra academic instruction for struggling students. Some will try hard to work with a student who has behavior challenges. If your child has a disability and you are thinking about private school, you should look at more than test scores or college acceptance rates. Ask if they offer additional support for students who need it. Pay attention to body language and other clues when you speak with school staff. Those may tell you a lot about how willing the school is to make an extra effort to help all of their students succeed.